ebook sales

This morning, a post on Kboards mentioned that Amazon has a new “Indie” section of their storefront. Within a handful of posts–and ignoring the fact this list is actually two years old and has been browsable for months, if not that entire two-year period–the thread was awash in posts proclaiming that this was the first step in Amazon’s master plan to shutter indies away in some self-publishing ghetto, where normal shoppers would never see our tainted wares.

Amazon won’t do that. It’s in their vested interest to keep indies in the same population as trad-published books. Segregating us to an indie dungeon would only hurt them.


Well, for one thing, Amazon thinks the ebook market does best when most titles are $2.99 – 9.99. Major publishers prefer to charge as much as they can. Indie authors price almost exclusively at $0.99 – 5.99 and are probably the single biggest pressure for downward prices in the ebook market.

But yes, Amazon has no use for us and it’s just a matter of time until we’re stuffed into the closet.

In the meantime, rather than fostering the race to the bottom (another major indie boogeyman), comparing Smashwords’ yearly surveys from 2012 and 2013 indicates indie prices have gone up in the last year, with more and more indies pricing and selling well at $3.99 – 5.99. Meanwhile, the average price of ebooks on Kindle bestseller lists has recently fallen to the $7-7.50 range. Right in the middle of Amazon’s $2.99 – 9.99 sweet spot. There now exists a band of prices covering every point between free and $14.99 (and up), allowing Amazon to target every conceivable type of reader, from extreme bargain-hunters to those who equate low prices with low quality.
But I’m sure now is the time when the ebook market will stabilize forever, allowing Amazon to toss us out like last week’s leftovers.
Even if prices were to magically stabilize here, a thriving indie market gives Amazon access to tens of thousands of titles no one else has. They have more books and more data than anyone else in publishing. By not setting arbitrary prices or restricting what gets published, they don’t have to make guesses about what might sell or how to sell it. They have hundreds of thousands of books creating a living ecosystem they can analyze to make their storefront even better–and they’re the only ones with access to that data. The more authors they allow in, and the more those authors are allowed to innovate, the more Amazon learns, and the bigger the advantage they have over every other publishing company on Earth.

But obviously, sooner or later Amazon is going to decide the jig is up and they’ve learned everything there is to know about ebooks and publishing.

We cost Amazon nothing. We’re free money. The only possible threat indies pose to their business is if we somehow poison the pool with bad books, but they’ve built their system so no one sees those books. And sometimes books that everyone would agree are “bad”–terrible editing, ugly covers, derivative plots–sell like gangbusters anyway. Why? I don’t know. But I bet Amazon has a few theories.

Because they were happy to let everyone publish, let consumers decide what they wanted to buy, and take advantage of that emergent behavior to get even better.

It’s tougher than ever to get started as an indie, but I think that has much less to do with Amazon squeezing us and more to do with how hypercompetitive indie authors have become at every aspect of the business. As we continue to innovate, not only does Amazon get 30-65% of everything we sell, they learn everything about how we sell it and what their customers want. The moment Amazon starts segregating us from the market is the moment they forfeit their knowledge-advantage to Kobo, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and anyone else looking to grab a corner of the ebook world.

If Amazon’s business model is a) be stupid and b) hand over the keys to the castle to their competitors, then yes, they might want to quash or segregate indie books.
But if they want to maintain dominance, they’ll let us continue to mix it up with the big boys just like we’ve been doing since the launch of KDP (or DTP, if you’re old school). Because collectively, indie authors continue to be one of their sharpest tools they have to remain the biggest, the smartest, and the most powerful player in the bookselling industry.
And that’s not going to change any time soon.

So you have written a book. After long, thoughtful consideration, possibly in the form of a sixth shot of tequila, you have decided to self-publish it. Unfortunately, for most of us indie authors, the next step is much tougher than writing the book itself: getting people to see the damn thing.

Note I say “see” instead of “buy.” The distinction’s intentional. If you’ve already gotten a potential reader to your book’s product page, the techniques for convincing them to buy it are very limited and very simple: an eye-catching, professional cover. A compelling blurb. A strong sample. And a reasonable price.

But that advice is so common-sense and commonplace that chances are your eyes glazed over while you were reading it.

The real challenge is getting readers to see your book in the first place. And the advice on that front tends to be limited, contradictory, or flat-out wrong. Well, I’ve got some good news for you: David Gaughran, author of the excellent self-publishing primer Let’s Get Digital, has a new book out dedicated to understanding how to get your own books in front of potential readers. It’s called Let’s Get Visible, and it’s available just about any place you might like to buy it, including Amazon, B&N, Apple, and Kobo.

I’ll be right up front and say I’m a friend of David’s, so take that for what it’s worth. But I read the book and I think it’s pretty dang good. Readers of this blog are probably already familiar with the mechanics of Amazon’s popularity lists, but Visible also covers some critical business involving categories, advertising, and launch strategies. In fact, I employed what he calls “Going for Broke” to launch my last Breakers novel Knifepoint. (Although at the time it may have been labeled “Balls to the Wall.”)

Other things I appreciate about Visible: the strategies and concepts he outlines don’t take much time to put in place, they’re all ethical and above-board, and they help provide a framework for understanding how future changes to Amazon’s recommendation system will impact your particular approach. The problem with digital publishing is the specifics change all the time. If you’ve got a handle on the theory behind how bookstores promote a title, it gets a whole lot easier to roll with the punches.

Anyway, I’m not much for a hard sell, but I think it’s going to help a lot of people. If you’re an indie author, you should absolutely go take a look.

Want to know how many sales a given Amazon Kindle rank represents? Here’s a quick and dirty formula:

100,000/rank # = sales per day

In other words, if a book’s rank is #100, then 100,000/100 = 1000 sales/day. If a book’s rank is #1000, then 100,000/1000 = 100 sales/day. At #100,000, then 100,000/100,000 = 1/day.

The formula breaks down at the extremes. It probably overestimates the sales of the top 100 books by a little, and the #1 book in a given day probably sells much more like 10,000/day than 100K, although as ever, at the top, it varies tremendously. And at #1,000,000, that’s not a book that sells 1 copy/10 days. We’re talking about a book that might not have sold more than 1 copy ever, or at least within the last 6 months.

Overall, though, it’s a pretty good rule of thumb. It’s probably a little conservative–tack on 10-20%, and you’re probably closer to the truth for most ranks–and it also depends on factors like velocity of sales in the last 0-48 hours, so books that have recently been boosted by a sale may be +/- 50% of the sales numbers or more. Also, a book that has hung out at a certain rank for a while needs fewer sales to maintain that ranking long-term.

Treat it as a guideline, though, and it’s pretty close to the truth. Does that mean you could extrapolate it to estimate how many ebooks Amazon sells per day? Yes. You totally could.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been too busy to do anything except revise my upcoming novel, but when the guys at the Self-Publishing Podcast invited me back on the show, I jumped at the chance. In the last year, host authors Johnny B. Truant, Sean Platt, and David Wright have exploded; their serialized Yesterday’s Gone has sold tens of thousands of copies, Amazon picked them up for a couple Kindle Serials, and they continue to produce new titles with staggering prolificacy. Dudes know their shit.

So in their latest episode (#42), I went on to talk with them about Select and what Amazon’s algorithms have been up to since I was on the show last May, but I expected to learn plenty from them, too. I wasn’t disappointed.

You can watch the show here. I had a blast. Hope there’s something useful for you, too.

In one sense, it isn’t news that Amazon wants the payment to authors for Select borrows to be about $2.00. The program is now over a year old, and in that time, the rate has always been pretty close to that mark. But this December, a lot of people thought things might be different. Amazon announced that they were adding a bonus payment to the Select pool, doubling their borrows budget to $1.4M. There was talk that borrows might pay $3 or even $4 apiece. I didn’t think it would get that high, but I figured it would be a big enough pot to keep borrows in the $2-2.50 range.

The December 2012 borrows rate was recently announced. The payout? $1.88.

Well. A bit skimpy. But how does that compare to the history of the program? Here’s the per-borrow payment each month since Select started.

12/11 – $1.70
1/12 – $1.60
2/12 – $2.01
3/12 – $2.18
4/12 – $2.48
5/12 – $2.26
6/12 – $2.08
7/12 – $2.04
8/12 – $2.12
9/12 – $2.29
10/12 – $2.36
11/12 – $1.90
12/12 – $1.88

Over the course of the program, Select has paid an average monthly rate of $2.07 per borrow. Its lowest payout was $1.60 in January 2012; its highest was $2.48 in April 2012. The payment rate has never been more than 20% lower than $2.00 or 25% higher than $2.00. Trend-wise, the per-borrow payment has never increased more than 3 months in a row, and it’s never decreased for more than 3 months in a row.

Based on these numbers, I think we can conclude a few things about Amazon.

  • Amazon wants borrows to pay about $2 apiece
  • Amazon doesn’t want to set the borrow rate at a hard $2 apiece
  • Amazon is really good at modeling consumer behavior
  • They’ve done better over the holidays than expected

Rad. All this raises a few immediate questions.

Why $2?

The glib economics answer is Amazon believes $2 is the rough price point at which enough authors will stay enrolled in Select to give Prime customers an enjoyable selection of books and thus incentivize them to re-up next time, too. As for how Amazon reached that $2 figure in the first place, I don’t know. The obvious answer is that $2 is about what an author would be paid for a sale of a $2.99 book at a 70% royalty, making a borrow just as good as a sale.

Why not a hard $2 monthly payment?

I think there are several reasons for this. For one thing, a $600,000 or $1,500,000 pot looks a lot more enticing to authors than $2/borrow. There’s a bit of a gambling element to it. Sure, borrows may only have been $2.04 this month, but what if they go up to, say, $2.40 next month? And what if I can get more of them than I did last month? That could really add up. *click, enrolled*

For another thing, maybe Amazon doesn’t have perfect confidence in their predictions of customer behavior. If they set borrows at $2, and next month Fire sales explode and they wind up with double the borrows they had last month, Select would cost them twice what they had budgeted. Amazon’s got riches for days, so maybe an extra $200K or $600K is no big deal, considering it’s a cost incurred by selling all those new Kindles/getting all those new Prime subscriptions, but even Amazon has budgets.

But the most important thing, I think, is that Amazon loves complex systems. They don’t want to lay down rules from above, they want to build dynamic ecosystems, because if you build them right, such systems are self-correcting–and provide you with all kinds of awesome data. For instance, if you set the borrow payment at $2, and authors slowly decide that’s insufficient, they’ll unenroll. The selection of titles in the Kindle Online Lending Library will shrink, making it less attractive to Prime members, leading to fewer subscriptions and less $$$ for Amazon.

But if you make the per-borrow payment dynamic, then you have a self-correcting element to push the system back to equilibrium. Maybe $2 isn’t worth enrolling, but as there are fewer books sharing the pot and/or fewer Prime customers borrowing them, the borrow payment creeps up. Maybe at $2.25, a few more authors decide it’s worth their while to join up. At $2.50, even more jump ship for Select. The KOLL has more titles, making it more exciting for prospective Prime customers, leading to (hopefully) a resurgence in subscriptions. And then as more authors and Prime customers join up, the per-borrow payment shrinks again, but who cares? You’ve got fresh blood in the program. To leave it, they’re going to have to a) decide it’s no longer worth it and b) take action to get out of it. Until they do, you’ve got authors’ content and customers’ money.

And in the meantime, you get to collect all this awesome data about how all these groups react to the changes in the system.

Because Amazon doesn’t know that $2 is the ideal borrow payment. Maybe authors will flood Select with titles for just $1/borrow. If so, great news for Amazon. They can offer even better service to their customers at little or no extra cost to themselves.

Why might Amazon have had better holidays than they anticipated?

I don’t know that for a fact. But look at the numbers above. To date, the only months the borrow payment rate has dipped below $2 are in November, December, and January–the leadup to Christmas, Christmas itself, and the post-Christmas boom. If they wanted borrows to be around $2, then they’ve had a few more Prime customers both holiday seasons than they predicted.

What does this mean for authors going forward?

Well, that would seem like good news. Because a lot of those new Prime members have their membership because they bought a Kindle Fire. And new Kindle Fire owners means more people around to buy ebooks.

It also means the Select program is pretty stable. There are still a lot of authors in the program and a lot of Prime members borrowing their books. From Amazon’s perspective, this is just dandy. And if everything’s working as they like, it’s less likely that they’re going to put out a lot of shiny new incentives to the Select program.

Note: there is a big difference between “less likely” and “won’t”. However well Select is doing for Amazon, the bloom is off the rose. They could decide to do something about that at any time.

But the program looks stable, and it looks like a winner. I’m having a hard time typing this, because I feel like there are good odds I’ll soon be proven hilariously wrong at any moment, but don’t count on any big changes to the program soon.

And in the meantime, expect to be paid about $2 per borrow. Amazon appears to want to keep it there–and Amazon is pretty good at getting what they want.

It is an amazing time to be an author. No joke. It has probably never been easier or more realistic to make a living writing books. Self-publishing platforms offered by Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, Kobo, and elsewhere have made it incredibly easy for authors to reach readers directly. Maybe too easy! Well, you don’t have to buy it, chums.

But I am deeply in love with all these companies. After spending most of a year gazing creepily into their Nooks and crannies, I have determined they are very much like people. Some take more time to understand than others. Some are easygoing. Others are grumpy. Whatever their faults, however, I love them all, because they have given me the job I have always wanted to had: writing books.

And just like friends and relatives, none of them is perfect. Since they’ve all come to me begging for advice, I’ve assembled a list of ways they can improve (from the perspective of indie authors) over the next year. It should be stated and restated that none of these suggestions means I think any of these places is useless or bad. I genuinely love all of them.

But some could be better to me. If I were these places, and I cared what indie authors thought, here’s what I would do to improve the experience in 2013.

Amazon needs to improve the Select program.

In 2012, Select changed everything. It released in early December of 2011 and allowed unknown authors to give their books away to thousands of readers. With a decent free run to vault them up Amazon’s popularity lists, an author could go on to sell a lot of their books over the next 7+ days, too. Over the period of just a few months, uncounted indie authors built real careers on the back of Select.

In March, Amazon tested ways to alter the program, because (presumably) it resulted in a lot of questionable books at the top of the popularity lists, which is one of their major drivers of sales. In May, they decided they had a better system, and watered down the effectiveness of freebies significantly. Within six months of Select going live and changing everything, Amazon neutered it.

The outcome looks great for Amazon. Only the books that gave away the greatest number of copies saw a significant boost in sales afterwards (and instead of lasting for 1-2 weeks, that boost could last for a full month!). That meant only the books that had been most vetted by free downloaders wound up in front of paying customers.

Which meant it became more of a winner-takes-all program. Great for indie books with strong packaging in popular genres. Not so great for niche subgenres, or for anyone who doesn’t fall into, say, the top 2-5% of the Select program.

I don’t know, maybe it’s best for readers to only be served up with the best of the best indie books. But it is not the best for authors. Especially those with quality books but whose genre/luck/ability to massage the big book blogs isn’t the strongest. Offering Select authors a 70% royalty in certain non-English-speaking territories isn’t enough. The KOLL doesn’t provide them enough alternative visibility, either (and anyway, it still disproportionately rewards those at the top). Exclusivity should be worth something. There’s got to be another way to get started as a new author besides trashing other books on Goodreads, building a following, and then releasing a New Adult book. Please add a new incentive to Select in 2013.

Barnes & Noble needs an affiliate program.

As far as I know, there is no B&N equivalent to free and bargain Kindle book blogs like Pixel of Ink, Ereader News Today, and Free Kindle Books and Tips, to name just the largest. Blogs like these are instrumental for helping indie authors run promotions and get in touch with eager readers, yet there’s not a single blog remotely like this for B&N.

Why are there a jillion Kindle blogs and zero for Nook? Because Kindle blogs make lots of money off Amazon’s affiliate program. When they direct a shopper to Amazon, they receive a cut of anything that shopper goes on to buy during that trip. This incentivizes entrepreneurs to set up sites meant to alert readers to free, bargain, and noteworthy books available on Amazon. If these blogs do a good job at that, they make lots and lots AND LOTS of money.

B&N has an affiliate program, but they don’t extend it to ebooks. Thus nobody cares enough to get one going for ebooks. Thus indie authors and small publishers have far fewer methods to promote ebooks on B&N. I don’t know why they don’t extend this program to ebooks. It seems like free money for everyone–B&N gets advertising at a small cost of the sales generated by that advertising; bloggers get affiliate money; authors get royalties–yet B&N discontinued the program earlier this year. Maybe the numbers just didn’t add up.

But this is one of the chief reasons Amazon has a robust indie market and B&N is a very distant second. If they want a share of that market, they’ve got to open up ways for people to participate in it. I think that starts with affiliate percentages on ebooks.

This goes for all the ebookstores, really. If I were a smaller outlet like Sony, I would be murdering myself–or better yet, everyone else!–to set up an effective affiliate program and get other people selling my products for me.

Kobo needs an automated new releases list.

Kobo’s got a bunch of lists on their site, but most appear to be hand-operated. As in, books are selected to appear on them by hand. That’s cool, but it rewards established authors who already have the name recognition to be selected for these lists.

This extends to new releases. Yet the new release lists are one of the few areas where new authors who have either a) great books or b) savvy can push their books up the list, drawing new eyeballs.

I love Kobo. They’ve made great strides in 2012, they’re super personable, they’re indie-friendly, and I think they will soon be/already are a vital part of the ebook and indie marketplace. Now they just need to make it a little easier for new authors to get a toehold in their store. A big step in that direction includes a new release list that’s ordered by bestsellers and sortable by genre.

An automated list of bestselling freebies would be nice, too, but one step at a time.

The iBookstore needs more avenues to visibility.

Apple’s iBookstore is deeply intriguing. When you’re not used to it, it looks awful. Browsing is weird. It’s a miracle anyone can find anything. But once you’re used to it, it’s not bad at all. In fact, it’s got a bunch of different categories to find books in, a few lists of bestsellers, bargain-priced books, and staff picks, and as an author, you can set prices in 50 different countries and counting, allowing you to target prices and promotions to markets as they emerge.

But the iBookstore is not all that deep. It’s easy to find the bestselling books, as well as the ones the iBookstore team hand-selects to appear on the couple lists they’ve got, but that’s about it. Its searchability is less than great. Like Kobo, it’s very winner-takes-all. The tail isn’t very long with Apple (or, to be more accurate, very fat). They’re well-curated, but maybe a little too well-curated. Let’s add a few more ways for books to be discovered. Let indies work to prove their worthy rather than relying on you to be placed in front of shoppers.

Amazon needs to quit obsessing about new releases.

You thought I was done with Amazon? Ha ha! In the words of Kramer, not bloody likely!

In the last 1-2 years, Amazon has geared their site more and more toward new releases. Hot New Releases lists now last 30 days instead of 90. The popularity lists measure the last 30 days of sales rather than the last ~7. It has resulted in a system where new releases are king, and if you don’t sell well right off the bat, you may never have the chance to. For new writers, there’s really no such thing as “organic” growth on Amazon. You either bring a fanbase to the table to buy your new book the instant it goes live, or you struggle in total obscurity until you give away enough books to have a fanbase for your next release.

This is a catastrophic system. On the one hand, by measuring the last full 30 days of sales, it makes it very difficult for a short-term boost to be big enough to get a book selling in any real numbers. On the other hand, by only measuring the last 30 days, you ensure that books that did gain from short-term boosts and are now finding their audience will die a noisy death as soon as that 30-day cliff rolls around.

Please vary it up a little. I know, you’ve got 1,800,000 ebooks and counting. Who cares about all that old crap when you’re adding 100,000 titles per month. But right now, too many elements of the system run along similar lines. Book sales crash too hard and rockets launch too fast. Vary it up so that authors can actually claw their ways up the ranks. And when it comes time to fade, let them parachute gradually rather than smashing into a big red writer-shaped puddle.

You’re too volatile, is what I’m saying. Having multiple systems working on 30-day scales isn’t helping anyone except people who understand how to game new releases.

Smashwords needs to quit sucking.

I feel bad for saying this, because Smashwords founder Mark Coker is pretty cool, and a definite friend of indies. But at this point, his ebook distribution service doesn’t offer a whole lot of value. It’s good to use if you don’t have a Mac and want to be on iTunes. It’s nice if you don’t live in the US but want to distribute to B&N. And it’s useful to get out to all those other tiny stores where nobody sells anything but you may as well be there because hey why not. Oh, and it lets you put free books on B&N, which is awesome for you but seems kind of useless for Smashwords.

Otherwise, there is no benefit to uploading through Smashwords instead of going direct to all the places that let you go direct (as of this writing, that includes [with some caveats] Amazon, B&N, Kobo, and the iBookstore).

On the contrary, Smashwords distribution can actually hurt you in a lot of ways. The Meatgrinder forces you to use .docs rather than the epubs that are industry-standard elsewhere. That means an additional round of formatting for many authors. Even .doc-users have to meet Smashwords’ rather rigid style guide. Smashwords doesn’t categorize books all that accurately, either, leaving your books in a wasteland of discoverability when they are pushed to other markets. And changes made to your books on Smashwords can take weeks or even months to filter through to the other stores.

I mean, Smashwords could be a pretty good service for a lot of authors, specifically the subset that wants to just buckle down and write rather than micromanaging their books on all the various vendors. Upload to Smashwords, distribute widely, collect checks, party party. I am far too data/control-neurotic to do that, but that is a valuable service. No joke.

But not accepting epubs and having very specific formatting requirements for .docs makes it less convenient to go through them, and their general sluggishness makes it excessively difficult to run effective sales or promotions. In fact, given pricematching between stores, having delayed price changes can result in authors losing hundreds or thousands of dollars when Amazon slashes their book prices down to match prices on Sony that should have been changed a month ago.

So there you go, SW. Get faster, get more precise in areas like category mapping, and accept epubs. I’m sure that’s just as easy as I’ve made it sound.

Everyone except Kobo and the iBookstore needs to improve their customer service.

Kobo and iBookstore: awesome. Knowledgable, prompt, helpful, eager. Everyone else: terrible. Take a lap.

B&N’s customer service department has apparently all been zapped to Lost, because they don’t respond at all anymore. Amazon has no phone number for emergencies and their representatives are inconsistent at best. Smashwords is small and can take a long time to reply. Sony says, “Sorry, take it up with Smashwords.”

I know this stuff costs a lot of money. But two stores are doing it right. If you can afford to step up your CS game, look to Kobo and Apple.

Sony needs to exist.

That place is just a myth, right? A land of makebelieve sales? As far as ebookstores, the more the merrier, as far as I’m concerned. Out of roughly 14,000 books sold this year, I think about a dozen of those were on Sony. That is probably being generous. Sony: please prove you exist.

Okay, so at this point, we’re not newbie indie writers anymore. We’ve looked at releasing your first book and using Select to start selling it. In the next step, we kept with Select to build up some fans and learn more about what makes for an attractive book. Third was about examining the pros and cons of Select in preparation for where to go next. And after concluding that Select isn’t perfect, we looked at expanding into non-ebook formats and identifying when and what to pull from Select.

Then a lot of time elapsed. Sorry. I was busy putting some theories to the test. Another, more accurate way to put that is “I was scrambling like mad to make the actual transitions I intended to talk about.” Those were a fun couple months, where “fun” is also meant to be understood as “something not all that fun at all.”

But it’s lookin’ good now, and the experience helped me feel ready to talk about the next step. About hitting a stable career and the specific tactics used to get there. I’m hardly the first to come up with these strategies, but that is not about to stop me from talking about them as if I own them and am revealing them for the very first time!

The way I see it, there are three or four solid ways to continue selling books without a ton of active promotion. Naturally, all of this depends on writing new books in the meantime, as well as in cultivating a mailing list/fanbase to alert whenever that new release is ready. I hope this provides some stuff to think about even if you’re already well-familiar with concepts like permafree.

Staying in Select

No matter how many times DWS or KKR insist that you’re missing out on sales, angering potential readers, and otherwise acting a fool, the exclusivity of Select sometimes makes sense as a long-term plan. There are at least two ways to make this work.

The first is the much more common scenario. If you’ve got an established series, running a Select giveaway is a great way to support a new release or to boost flagging sales. A Select giveaway costs nothing and provides you with precise control of when your promo runs. It gets your book in a lot of new hands, giving you the opportunity to build your mailing list or your Facebook page or whatever tools you prefer to use to have direct contact with your fans. There are all kinds of theories and strategies for selling books, but I haven’t seen any as revolutionary as Select. I’ve seen it build dozens of careers this year, including mine.

I mean, I’m leery of Select. I’m less in love with it by the day. But it still works very, very well for some people, particularly authors of series. With 3+ books, you can run a free promo of one book every month without having to make a given book free more than once every three months. That’s a good long time between free runs. Enough to let a book recharge its batteries a bit. That strikes me as a far more sustainable strategy than trying to give away the same book every month (although even that can work), especially if you’re adding a new book or two (or three!) to the series every year.

The second long-term use of Select is if you’re selling so well that you never even need to give copies of your books away. This might sound like a great reason to leave Select–if your books are doing that well, surely they will sell in the other stores as well–but here’s the thing: borrows. If your books are doing great, they’ll place highly in the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library (the KOLL), which is what Kindle-users browse to find books to borrow. The KOLL only represents the subset of books in Select (along with a small number of traditionally published books that have negotiated special arrangements with Amazon), so the competition there is much less fierce. If you’re a strong seller, chances are you’ll wind up with great visibility in the KOLL.

Let’s think about this for a moment. Despite the growth of all the other stores, Amazon retains something like 60% of the ebook market. Meanwhile, before Christmas made everything all crazy, Amazon was getting about 250,000 borrows per month. These were split up among a smaller pool of books (everything in Select) and the books at the top were rewarded with a disproportionately high cut of the borrows. While a bestseller like Hugh Howey’s Wool has done plenty well in the other stores, it might do even better by staying in Select and racking up borrows; he’s intimated as much on comments on Kindleboards.

Crazy, I know, and totally counterintuitive–unless you think of the KOLL as a completely separate market. A small store, sure, with just a few hundred thousand customers per month, but it’s also got a much smaller selection to split those customers between. It’s the guaranteed opportunity to be a big fish in a small pond, and that is generally a safer bet than it is to fling your book at the other stores and hope its word of mouth allows it to do just as well at B&N, Kobo, the iBookstore, Kobo, Smashwords, Sony, and all the rest as it did at Amazon.

I’ll put it another way. Let’s say Librios, the god of books, strolls down from book-heaven and presents you with a choice. He can make you a bestseller at Kobo, but you have to remove your book from the iBookstore. Mwa ha ha ha! Would you do it?

Unless you’re already a bestseller at both places, of course you would. The argument for publishing to every possible outlet is that you never know where a book might take off, so you should buy as many lotto tickets as possible to up your chances of breaking out.

But if you’re doing that great with Select and its borrows, you have already won the lotto.

The concept that it is best to publish to every store isn’t a universal truth, then, it’s a dogmatic principle. Your situation doesn’t care about principles. Your situation cares about your situation. Look at your placement on the KOLL. Look at your monthly borrows, and remember those apply to your bestseller rank, too. I don’t know where the cutoff point is, but if, say, 20%+ of your income is generated by borrows, it might make more sense to stick with a winning ticket than to go chasing a hypothetical 40% of the marketplace that might never materialize for you.

Moving into the Other Stores

But you know what? Select kind of sucks. Giveaways aren’t as effective as they once were. Amazon is throttling freebies on sites like POI and ENT, meaning they list about half as many free books each day as they did a couple months ago. Meanwhile, other markets continue to grow. And rather than improving the Select carrot in any meaningful way, Amazon is hitting authors with an impotent stick, offering 70% royalties in India and Brazil for Select books and just 35% for non-Select titles. What incredible opportunity! India has a billion people! Brazil is the most populous country in South America! Yeah, and they’re not exactly busting down the ebook doors just yet. At this moment, I have sold 1100+ books on Amazon in December and given away another 11,500+. 0 of those have been in Brazil. Great incentive, guys.

Anyway, it just doesn’t feel safe to me. I like the idea of diversity. Diversity is healthy. It lets you weather change and disaster. It feels good to not have to rely on so many things beyond your control–Amazon algorithms, free book sites, yadda yadda yadda.

So let’s say you’re thinking about exiting Select for the greener pastures of BN etc. Here’s the thing: don’t do it until you have an actual plan to sell at BN. Letting your books sit around waiting to be struck by sales-lightning is a terrible idea. The slow burn leading to a boom of success is something of a myth. It’s an outlier, at the very least. If you’re selling 2/month at BN, that’s not going to lead to growth. Maaaybe if you’re doing 20/month. You need to be climbing ranks, accumulating meaningful alsobots, etc. A book doesn’t have to be a bestseller in every store to be a valuable part of your writin’ business, but you have to do something to get sales going.

Because the idea that a good book will eventually find its audience is just that. An idea. A wish. Cream only rises to the top because it is less dense than the lower-fat milk beneath it and it is a natural law of physics that less-dense substances will float on top of denser substances. Books are not dairy products. Writers can trick you with metaphors about selling books because it is a writer’s job to trick people into believing in places and things that aren’t true. So. Books are books.

Fortunately, it does not require a 12-point business plan to sell them outside Amazon. Here’s a few simple ways to actually make it worth your while to leave Select.

The Perma-Free Option

This plan is super-simple: if you have a series, make the first book free. Permanently. You can accomplish this by setting the price to $0.00 on Kobo and the iBookstore, using Smashwords to distribute at $0.00 to BN, and getting Amazon to pricematch your title to $0.00. This plan is awesome because it requires very little work to set up and virtually no work to maintain. Readers check out your first book because it costs nothing, and if they like it, maybe they go pay real money for book two.

A lot of people have seen great success with this plan. The common pattern of sales is a genuine slow burn that eventually explodes as a series picks up steam. After some time–a few months, typically–sales tail off, but still continue to come in at a nice, steady level. And since there are several different stores to build an audience in, you can experience this cycle at four or five different places with a single series.

Some authors don’t like free books. They don’t like the idea of giving away something they worked so hard on. They think free books devalue the marketplace and will eventually be the ruin of us all.

Well, good news, Scrooge. You don’t have to.

Just Write a Series

That may be all it takes to start selling in other stores. If you’d prefer to have a career now rather than counting on some five-year business plan whose chief tenets are magical thinking and wishcasting the future, I recommend starting your first couple books in Select, then transitioning out once you’ve got 3+ books in that series.

The idea is to use Select to pick up initial visibility, sales, and fans despite being a no-name nobody who’s otherwise lucky to sell 1/week. Once you’ve got something of a fanbase on Amazon, and no longer have to rely exclusively on giveaways to sell a new book, you can get going in other stores just by releasing the entire series there at once.

Why does it make a difference to release a series together (or at least tightly-spaced) rather than one at a time over several months? Because a series is like an A-Team. There aren’t a lot of Rambo-books out there, invincible one-book killing squads that can’t be stopped no matter how many trad-shirt enemies get in their way. It is very rare to have a book that good.

But if you’ve got a squad of books, they help each other out. They pull each other up when one of them stumbles. BN, for instance, has a new releases list that goes back 90 days. You have a much better chance of climbing high up this list if you fire three titles at it all at once–giving browsers three chances to find your series–rather than hitting it with a single book at a time. There are cases in which books enter a state of positive reinforcement where they haul each other faster and faster down the track.

There are no guarantees this will actually work. This plan is a definite citizen of the Sovereign Nation of My Books Will Magically Sell Themselves. But at least it ups your odds. “Synergy,” it’s called, if you’re a fan of words that could get you punched. Depending on the store, you’ll only be eligible for new release lists for 1-3 months. Take advantage of this visibility while you’ve got it. Let your series be an A-Team. That is what series are designed to do.

Do Something. Anything at All. Seriously, Just Do Something to Get Started

Here is a slightly less magical plan: when you move your books out of Amazon, advertise or promote your books in some way. If you know a site that advertises to Nook users, book an ad for soon after your books go live on BN (and then tell me where you advertised, because non-Amazon ad sites are as rare as snipes). Do something. Anything at all to get some initial sales and, with any luck, provoke your books into continuing to sell.

Because here is another law of physics, one that might actually apply to books: a body at rest tends to stay at rest. A book that isn’t selling tends to continue not to sell. Anti-Select people like to talk about the opportunity cost of Select–all the potential non-Amazon sales you’re giving up by being exclusive to Amazon–but if you are in the other stores, and you’re not selling anything, then you’re incurring an opportunity cost by not being in Select, where you could be sparking sales through giveaways.

Even if you’re generally anti-marketing, then, do something to get sales going. Do a $0.99 sale along with a new release. Book an ad. Blog your ass off. Whatever. The goal is to get the new store you’re in to start selling your book for you so you don’t have to keep doing this stupid marketing stuff.

Here’s an example of all this junk in action. I published Melt Down, the sequel to Breakers, to Barnes & Noble on October 16. My October sales there were 8. 4 for Breakers, 4 for Melt Down. I made $16.30 in October. Melt Down was only out a couple weeks, so why don’t we double that to represent a full month going forward. 16 sales. 3-4/week. $30-40 a month. Whoopee.

In early November, dissatisfied with my new release sales everywhere, I threw a bunch of junk together. A guest post on my friend’s popular blog. An ENT ad. Etc. I reduced Breakers and Melt Down to $0.99. Aided by advertising, being on BN’s new releases list, and a $0.99 sale, I sold a few hundred copies over there. The boost was short-lived. About five days. After that, I restored them to $2.99 and $3.99. But even after things settled down, the sale had given them some visibility. Alsobots. A few reviews. Maybe a bit of word of mouth. Six weeks later, they’re continuing to sell about 3/day. $7/day, $200/month.

The difference between $40/month and $200/month probably isn’t the difference between dogfood dinner and organic prime rib, but this is where Dean Wesley Smith’s mantra about creating as many revenue streams as possible through as many sites as possible starts to make sense. But I don’t agree with his ideas about tossing your work out there and doing nothing to promote it. Not when you’re still scrabbling to establish a career and every dollar matters. Take a few days off to give yourself a kick, then get back to writing.

The Hybrid Solution

I’m talking about all this stuff like it’s just that simple, but it’s not. Even when you’re in Select, and you’re on Amazon, which all sorts of sites offer advertising and support for, selling books is tough. Selling books in non-Amazon stores is even tougher. If you’re making a career out of indiedom, cutting off Select and taking the plunge into the other stores could be a serious risk to your sales. If it gets bad enough, you could find yourself back with–shudder!–a real job.

So maybe it’s a good idea to leave some books in Select and others out. That’s been my plan since August–move my Breakers series into the other stores while keeping The Cycle of Arawn in Select. My thinkin’ was to hedge my bets. By keeping Arawn in Select, I could still run free giveaways to keep sales steady even as Breakers dwindled on Amazon and fought to get established in the other stores.

It worked. Or maybe it worked, question mark? Since it’s only been a few months and all. My sales shrank for a couple months, but then Breakers got going on BN, and now it’s going on Kobo, and I just did a big Select giveaway of Arawn back on Amazon, and woooooo Christmas.

Anyway, it doesn’t particularly matter how it worked for me. The concept is what’s important. Having one series in and one series out is just about being flexible. Which you can’t do if you have bizarre, unbreakable principles about how a very fluid book market is supposed to work. Unless you think there is something morally heinous about it, Select isn’t an ideology, it’s a tool. Every single (non-heinous) strategy is just a tool. Tools are made to be picked up when they can be useful and set down when the job changes or you find a better tool to get the old job done.

A Summary

The problem with these long-range business plans–write ten book before you start promoting; forego Select and get your start in all the markets right now–is that even if they are sound in principle (and I mostly think they’re not), no one can predict how they’ll play out for an isolated, individual career. A hard, rigid plan may not be the best fit for where you are right now in your life. If you’re relying on your income as an author to survive, and that income is partly or wholly reliant on using Select, then obviously you’re going to want to be a lot more cautious and gradual about leaving the program than someone with a day job that pays all the bills and affords the luxury of taking high-risk gambles or embarking on years-long plans.

That seems like such common sense that I’m sitting here thinking, “Dude, you can’t seriously be trying to pass that off as wisdom. That is so obvious and self-evident that you are an idiot for bothering to type it aloud.” Yet I see people passing down hard and fast rules to new writers all the time. Stuff that sounds so insane it would make more sense as deliberate sabotage.

I’ve tried to pull together some specific strategies here–when it makes sense to stick with Select, going permafree, how and when to transition from other stores–but I think success as an independent author boils down to a handful of very basic ideas.

One, you need to keep writing. This is the advice that everyone gives, because it is the best advice. I don’t know how many books you “need” to write per year to sustain a career. I am going to say one, at the very, very least. Two or three or four is going to make it a lot easier on yourself. Depending on your background, four books per year may sound impossible, almost comically fast and virtually guaranteed to produce hackish drivel, but you can write a lot when you’re writing as a full-time job. The very fastest indies I’ve seen put out a new full-length novel every single month.

I sure don’t write that fast (although I may be capable of 3-4/year now), but that’s just to provide a sense of scale. The specifics don’t matter. If you want to make this a full-time job, then you have to treat it like a full-time job. Let that not be lost in all this babble of tactics.

Second, you have to try things for yourself. You have to find something that works for you, and when you find it, you have to keep doing it. Aggressively.

As long as it’s not evil, a specific tactic has no value judgment attached to it. If you’re getting results from Select, keep doing Select. If not, try the other stores. Try ads, even if Konrath says they’re stupid and never did him any good. Try anything. Try everything. Failure’s good. Failure’s cool. Failing means you’re trying.

If you’re done failing, and you’ve got to the point where your fans will follow you down any path, then congratulations, you’ve won. For most of us, it’s still a struggle. If someone’s found a way to make it work, I hate to see other writers put that down just because the author is using Select or erotica or serials or whatever damn trend is bringing the judge-hounds sniffing around. If it works and you like it, do it now, because it may not work tomorrow.

But even if it does stop, you’ve probably wound up with more fans. More experiences. More resources to get you through to the next port in the storm. It gets easier. I think. How’s that for reassuring?

This series of posts is now to the end of my experience. I don’t know where it goes from here. I am sure the next year of changes will force me to find out.

Much like punching a crocodile, indie publishing is simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. Exhilarating, because hey, you hit “publish” this morning and perhaps tomorrow the next thing you will hit is the ceiling after you discover you sold a million copies overnight. At the very least, it is exhilarating because you’ve taken control.

At the same time, it is utterly, skin-grippingly terrifying, because it’s such a big, big world, and when there are 1,504,243 titles and counting in the Kindle store alone, who the hell knows how a book ever sells a single copy in the first place.

When I put my first book out, I didn’t have the faintest idea what to do with it. Joe Konrath said I should join Kindleboards, so I did that. I posted about my book there and nothing happened. When my next books came out, I did the same thing, and more nothing continued to happen. It took me a full 12 months before all that nothing began to turn into something.

If I were starting my indie author career over right now, if I had my first book all ready to go out and conquer the world, here’s what I might do instead.

First, I would price my book at $2.99 or $3.99. This is not based on scientific research over here. But $0.99 is gaining a stigma and, from what I’ve absorbed elsewhere, $3.99 is the lowest price at which many readers will impulse-buy. When you’re just starting out, you’ve got nothing. No reviews. No also-boughts pointing back to your book. No recommendations from a reader’s trusted friend. There is nothing to break down a buyer’s resistance to buying your book, so you want to keep that resistance as low as possible with a bargain price. $2.99-3.99 seems to be low enough for that resistance to frequently be overcome by no other tools than your cover, your concept, and your sample.

Second, I would enroll my book in Amazon’s Select program.

This is a controversial decision. Well, it’s not that controversial. It’s about as controversial as all the thrillers listed on Amazon with subtitles including the word “CONTROVERSIAL,” which is to say that a few of us nerds might care, but nobody else gives a damn. Anyway, there is a mild controversy around Select. A lot of writers don’t like the idea of being exclusive to Amazon. A lot of writers think giving away your book devalues it and all books, and that it leads to temporary, inorganic gains that will soon dry up and blow away. What these authors are after is a long-term organic strategy of distributing to as many markets as possible and building up many different revenue streams that add up to a steady and sustainable income.

Well, good luck, guys.

That’s a little snarkety. But the thing is, every storefront presents you with a different set of tools to get your book in front of readers. And Amazon’s Select program is the very strongest tool of them all.

Quick aside: you should probably attach the phrase “In my opinion” to every sentence here. It will save us all a lot of time and anguish.

But here are some facts, or at least the facts as I have experienced them. If you push your book to Barnes & Noble, it will appear on the new releases list if readers sort by date, and there may be a week or two in which people see it. If you distribute to iTunes, it may not show up anywhere at all. Same with Kobo. It will be visible on Smashwords’ new releases for about a day before it’s buried, and then people are going to have to search for it to find it.

In other words, the window for your new book to take off purely organically is about 1-7 days long. If those 1-7 days pass and you haven’t sold enough to start making bestseller lists and generating also-boughts and all that–which you won’t–your book will be buried by all the new releases.

And that is where Select comes in.

For the record, I’m not an unrepentant Amazon/Select cheerleader. Of my 9 titles, only 2 are currently in Select, and I might not leave them there for another term. The program is not what it used to be. And it’s not a magic bullet. But it still has its uses.

Let us say you have hit “Publish.” Your book goes live. Shoppers can now find it by browsing the new releases or by searching for very specific terms and keywords, where your book will probably be listed as the #1,387th result. How else do you get readers to see your book?

One method, popularized widely by Amanda Hocking, is to submit your book to book bloggers. These people will review your book and then share it with their readership. This is a free and relatively simple way to get your book in front of people. But there are a lot of problems with this process. Another preface: book bloggers are great. I’ve known some spectacular people in the field who have really brightened my day with their devotion to finding new books and their enthusiasm in sharing them.

But you can’t count on book bloggers as a release strategy. They are overwhelmed with review requests. It may be weeks or months after you write to them before they can get to your book. If you’re chummy and entrepreneurial enough, maybe you can send them an ARC and schedule a review for around the time of your book’s release, but that means you have to wait to release until they’re ready, and waiting to release sucks. Anyway, that’s assuming the review will be good, which is no sure thing, even if your book is a professional product. Their opinions are highly subjective, after all. I’m a movie reviewer. A paid one who works for a newspaper. I hate all kinds of professionally-made movies that other people love dearly because reviews are nothing more than opinions, which always, always vary.

To summarize, then, reviews from blogs are likely to be slow to arrive, there’s a chance the review will hurt your book (just try selling it when it’s got a single two-star review), and even if the review is positive, the blogger’s audience probably won’t be all that big. If everything breaks right, it might be good for a few sales. Having a positive review out there may also help future shoppers decide to purchase your book. Seeking blog reviews isn’t a dumb thing to do, then, and it can help build up your long-term infrastructure, but it’s not going to do much for you on Day 1.

Anyway, things are different from when book bloggers gave Amanda Hocking the push that helped break her out. They’re all overwhelmed. You can’t hit enough of them to make much if any difference. Personally, the entire submission process feels too much like the agent hunt. I don’t submit to book bloggers anymore. Unless you write in YA, where they still seem to have some influence, I wouldn’t burn too much time on that route.

What do you do instead? It’s probably worthwhile to get your book listed on GoodReads. I am not intricately well-versed in how Goodreads runs, but if you have librarian status, or know someone who does, you should be able to add your book easily. If you can’t, it’s no big deal–someone will get to it eventually–but Goodreads seems to be a fairly important part of developing your book’s infrastructure, a concept I’ll get to in a bit.

But perhaps the most important thing you can do after hitting publish is this: make your book free. Right out of the gate. Give away the hell out if it. Schedule it for a two-day run, sit back, and see what happens.

“What happens” probably won’t be much. I think it’s vitally important to set the right expectations at this stage, and for most beginning authors, the reality is you’re going to sell very little right off the bat. In concrete terms, you’re doing very well if you’re selling 1/day. Many brand-new books from first-time authors with no platform can easily go days or weeks or even months between sales. A month from now, your sales column might consist of a number between 1-9, and that is perfectly okay.

At this phase, that means every single sale is a success. Every sale means someone stumbled over an unknown book and thought it looked interesting enough to pay money for. Do you know how hard it is to make that happen? Remember: 1,504,243 ebook titles and counting. As a brand-new book, the only place you’re showing up is in the new releases list and in keyword searches, and even then, anyone who found your book is either obsessive or almost superhumanly dedicated to finding new books, because they probably had to dig through dozens of pages before they happened upon yours. In terms of its present visibility, your book may have a “Buy” button on its page, but in many ways it still hasn’t really been published.

So cheer every day you do get a sale, but try not to be surprised or disappointed when you don’t. It’s probably going to be some time before your book starts traveling down some of the main avenues to discoverability.

And that’s why we’re going free right off the bat–to try to kickstart a couple of these avenues.

Again, don’t expect much from your first free run. A few hundred downloads on your first day is a pretty good outcome; my brand-new novels have typically pulled 200-500 on their first day free. If you’re in that range, hooray! I’d let it run free for a second day just in case it wants to catch fire, but it’ll probably give away fewer copies than it did the day before, which is perfectly normal.

Let’s address the exceptions real quick. If your book does start giving away a ton of copies–I dunno, 2000 or more–I would definitely add a third day, and keep adding days for as long as it keeps getting downloads. If it gets very few downloads–like, 50 or fewer over those two days–take a close look at your book’s presentation, its cover and blurb. If they look good, maybe you just ran into some bad luck, but this could be a sign that your book’s appeal isn’t quite there yet. One of the collateral benefits to making your book free is it can help you ballpark its overall sexiness. If you’ve got doubts about your book’s surface appeal, take this opportunity to fix it up now. Seriously. It matters.

If your book had a more middle-of-the-road outcome, though, and gave away 300-1000ish copies over its run, awesome. With a little luck, its infrastructure is about to get going. “Infrastructure” is just some crap I made up, but I think of it in terms of all the things about your book that makes it visible and makes it pretty. This includes any number of things. Reviews–onsite, on Goodreads, on blogs, wherever. Alsobots, which is our very clever slang term for the similar/related books a website will recommend to people viewing a specific title. Nice placement on lists (bestseller, popularity, new releases, whatever). And the ever-popular, ever-nebulous word of mouth.

By going free and giving away several hundred copies of your book, you’ll generate a bunch of alsobots that appear on other titles’ product pages that point back to your book. Hooray for visibility! And with a little luck, you’ll pick up a few Amazon reviews in the next few days and weeks, too. Maybe just one or two or three, but assuming they’re generally positive, these are going to help take advantage of your increased visibility by helping to convince anyone browsing your page that a living, breathing, non-you person enjoyed and recommended your book. (Because a real person did enjoy it. Don’t fake reviews. It’ll come back to bite you.) People might start reviewing your book on Goodreads, too–they’ll probably be more inclined to do so if its page already exists–which means their friends will see their reviews, which might entice them to check out your book. (More expectations-setting: Goodreads reviews are generally much harsher than Amazon. On Goodreads, 3 stars generally means they liked it. Didn’t love it, but liked it. That’s more like a 4-star review over on Amazon.)

You may wind up with a handful of sales in the first few days after your free run, too. Always an awesome feeling. These will probably slow down all too soon. But between alsobots (hopefully!) and reviews (hopefully!), maybe instead of selling 1/month, you’re selling 1/week. Or instead of 1/week, you’re up to 1/day.

These are small gains. Frustratingly small, probably. Well quit whining, whiner! Ha ha, sorry. But really, right now, every gain is a gain. And there’s a less-tangible gain going on here, too. Through this process, you are learning. At least you better be learning! Again, sorry. You’re learning how to sell books in general and how to sell this book in specific. That’s going to make this whole business much easier down the road.

For now, that’s it. I mean, if you want, you can tweet and blog and Facebook and pursue book bloggers about your book. That could help. It’s probably better than nothing. It makes me feel like a jerk, though, and it’s very time-consuming, so I don’t do any of that stuff. Except blog here. Because I enjoy it. That is the real secret to self-promotion: find what you like, and do that.

Otherwise, there’s not much more you can do for now. Watch your book for 2-4 weeks. Most of all, you’re looking for reviews. You’re going to want 5+ of them, ideally with an average of 4.0 or better. Having done a giveaway is risky at this early stage, because a couple of poor negative reviews right off the bat can turn this process into an uphill slog, but I think it’s worth the risk. Just be aware that this could happen.

Hopefully you can get these initial mostly-positive reviews just through your giveaway and through normal sales, but if they’re not coming, you may want to spend time actively pursuing them. Again: please be ethical. Sockpuppets stink. Paid reviews are against Amazon’s policy, too. Don’t fall prey to temptation. This is a game of patience. This won’t be your only book, right? Then act with the same class you’d like to be known for in a year or five or twenty, when you have many books and many fans.

While you wait, work on your next novel. Learn more about the business by reading blogs or Kindleboards or whatever. Try not to obsess. Almost everyone sucks at first. Like I said, it was a full 12 months before I started selling more than 5-20 books per month.

What you’re gearing up for here is your second giveaway. A giveaway with a much better chance to hit it big and push your book up to the next plateau.

A giveaway which–cliffhanger!–will be the subject of my next post.

Part 2 can be found here.

It’s been a full week since I let Breakers expire from Select and began enrolling it in the other stores. So far, it’s been up on Barnes & Noble for that week, Kobo for about four days, and Smashwords for four days. Here are its sales so far:

B&N: 9

Kobo: 0

Smashwords: 1

Nothing overwhelming, but that’s not zero! Subjectively speaking, I’m slightly overwhelmed by B&N, whelmed by Smashwords, and underwhelmed by Kobo. 0 sales? Those dudes have 9 million registered users. Surely one of them might have snagged this book in the better part of a week.

But you know what B&N and Smashwords have that Kobo doesn’t? A new release section. A proper one, anyway. Kobo has one, but at the moment, it only has 118 titles in it. Since Breakers hasn’t sold anything on Kobo, it has no visibility anywhere else, either, meaning the only way for shoppers to find it is to specifically search for my name or its title.

By contrast, B&N has a very comprehensive new release section, and Smashwords’ isn’t half bad, either. (Smashwords even gives you extremely detailed stats compared to the other stores–for instance, since its release, Breakers has been viewed there about 70 times, been sampled 7, and generated 1 sale.)  Their new release section is how people are seeing the book, and when people see a book, some percentage of them will buy it.

I don’t say this to rag on Kobo. I like them quite a lot. They just launched their self-publishing wing, and they’ve already made a few upgrades to help books be seen. They recently added alsobots, too. Their search functionality is 1996ish, but I would be shocked if that weren’t something they’re working on right now.

But they could really use a proper new releases section. I’m getting the impression a lot of people browse that section of a store. A new release section is the only way for a new release to get visibility from within a store–by the very virtue of being new, a new release hasn’t sold anything yet. So it has no rank. No alsobots. None of the other methods through which ebook vendors automatically point customers to books they may be interested in.

In other words, it’s kind of huge.

There are two takeaways here, then. First, B&N is a tough market for an unknown to crack, but it’s a big market, so a nonzero amount of shoppers–those who trawl new releases, possibly with an eye for bargains (I’m selling at $4.95; most of the visible books at B&N are $7.99-14.99)–will find their way to your book. And second, the new release list is a powerful tool. It’s one of the few ways an unknown book will sell by itself. It’s an obvious tool to try to take advantage of. And in any stores without it, you may be sledding uphill.

Over the last few months, I’ve grown disillusioned enough with Amazon Select to pull my book Breakers from the program. Yesterday, its exclusivity expired. Today, Breakers is available on Barnes & Noble for the Nook reader.

It should be in Kobo as well at some point, but it appears to be stuck in publishing at the moment.

Selling beyond Amazon is a tricky proposition. Amazon has a lot of different places for a book to be discovered–bestseller lists for free and paid titles, popularity lists, hot new releases, alsobots, email recommendations, its internal search engine, etc. Between all these venues, as well as the Select program, it’s possible–not easy, but possible–to actively sell your book through a number of different methods. Methods which authors talk about all over the place.

For stores like iTunes and Barnes & Noble, however, the only really effective method I’ve heard about is “write a series and make book one free.” Common wisdom holds it’s possible for romance and erotica to sell well on B&N. Everything else, however, tends to sink into the morass, which is why, when it comes to the non-Amazon storefronts, indie authors’ most common reaction is the e-equivalent of throwing up their hands and muttering to themselves.

Self included. The entirety of my non-Amazon strategy to date has been to make one of my novellas free for nearly a year. That did approximately nothing to spur sales of my other titles, even before I started pulling them to go into Select. And in the first two months since returning to paid, that novella has sold 11 copies on iTunes and 0 on B&N.

In other words, I’m clueless.

But that’s what I’m hoping to address now. I know that Breakers can sell when it’s in front of people, so unlike my other titles, if I can find a way to get it some visibility in the other stores, it should sell. Hypothetically. So how do you find that visibility?

With B&N, new releases appear to get a bit of it. Since going live over there, Breakers has sold 3 copies, which a) I’m almost certain is attributable to being automatically added to the new release listings, and b) has already made me more money than I’ve ever made in a single month at B&N. New releases seem to be listed for up to 90 days over there. The default sorting appears to be by “Top Matches,” whatever that means. It could be an algorithm of some kind, or it could be codeword for “a big publisher paid us for this placement.”

Virtually everything on the first 100 default titles of Science Fiction & Fantasy, All New Releases is a trad book priced between $7.99-14.99. The few exceptions near the top are trad authors publishing short works (Terry Brooks and Laurell K. Hamilton). There are a handful of indies in the last ~30, some of which are free. All of these books have nice sales ranks. If you’ve got a series, it might be smart to start it out in Select, then pull it out once you’ve got 3+ titles and try to create instant momentum for the rest of the series by making the first book free and hoping its New Release placement will pull the rest of your books along behind it.

Beyond that, though, it looks like B&N shoppers have to do some pretty active searching to find any new releases that aren’t big bestsellers. Bummer.

Bestseller rank on B&N is less volatile/more sluggish than on Amazon, by the way. For instance, a single sale of a new release on Amazon would put your initial rank around #50,000; Breakers, with three sales (only one of which might be counted toward its rank) is currently #379,078 on B&N. I saw the same thing with my free title: over the months, roughly 1000 downloads pushed it up to something like #15,000 in the ranks. With no paid sales three months later, it’s still at #51,251.

What this means in practice is it’s harder to attain a high rating, but once you do, it’s easier to stay sticky. This is another reason trad books sell much better there while indie books have a hard time gaining traction. But if you’re an indie with a big old fanbase, you can probably do pretty well for yourself.

Well, none of this is encouraging so far. On the plus side: 3 sales so far isn’t nothing. If I wind up averaging just 1/day at B&N, I’ll consider it a success.

I’ll try to come back to my progress at B&N a week from now. By then, I hope to be up and running at Kobo as well. I’ve also applied to sell directly through iTunes, but I have no idea when or if I’ll be granted access. I probably should have applied for that weeks or months in advance. Learn from my mistakes, people!

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